By Melanie Cain
In an effort to learn more about some of UIS’ newest faculty members, we will be interviewing some of them and asking them to share their stories.
Tena Helton’s journey to UIS, where she joined the English faculty this fall, has been a remarkable -- and very busy -- trip. Along the way she overcame a number of hardships and barriers and is now fulfilling her life-long dream of teaching at a university.
Helton grew up in the Appalachian foothills in Polk County, North Carolina. “We were quite poor,” she says. “Without scholarships and my guidance counselor’s great connections, I would never have gone to college.” Enrolling at North Carolina State University, she began studying aerospace engineering but quickly figured out that was not where she should be. “I eventually found my way back to English, my first love and where my greatest strengths were.”
Helton graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a concentration and certification in secondary education in 1993 and did substitute teaching for a couple months before getting a job as a writer for agricultural trade magazines. After a year of writing for the magazines full-time, she went back for her master’s in English, again with a concentration in secondary education. In 1997, Helton received her master’s degree and began teaching freshman composition and British literature as a lecturer at NC State. Two years later she transferred to Louisiana State University to pursue a Ph.D. in American literature.
While at LSU, Helton received the Regent’s Fellowship for four years, as well as a fellowship to complete her dissertation. “I managed to serve both academia and the community by teaching classes, publishing articles, obtaining outside funding for and organizing a conference, and running a seminar at a local library – all while taking care of my two children and writing my dissertation,” she says. Helton completed her doctorate in May 2005 and feels that reaching this goal, despite many obstacles, is her greatest accomplishment.
When it came to decide where to teach, Helton says that selecting UIS was easy. “I chose UIS because it provides an environment in which I can teach well, commit time to research, and raise a family without going completely crazy,” she says. She adds that even at her interview she could see that UIS was committed to service in ways that many other universities are not. Access to the U of I system’s first-rate library and archives was another plus.
During her free time, Helton enjoys a variety of activities. “I love going to the zoo and learning about animals. When I retire from teaching, I want to volunteer at the zoo,” she says. “I also like racquetball and photography. My own children are usually the subjects, but any child makes for a fantastic picture.”
When asked what part of being a professor she enjoys most, Helton responds, “Hands down – teaching. That’s why I got into this field in the first place, and teaching truly is exciting, important work. Students help make me a better scholar.”